Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller

Gadfly: 2) a person who stimulates or annoys especially by persistent criticism.

Alienated teenager, budding journalist, Iris Dupont is sent to Mariana Academy by her parents in an effort to get her past her best friend’s suicide. Believing a total change of environment will make her more normal (something she’s never been!), they move to a small, western Massachusetts town and enroll her in this seemingly upscale, quality school. Let the fun begin.

Iris’s constant companion is the chain-smoking, dead journalist, Edward R. Murrow, who helps her investigate a series of anomalies between the school’s facade and realities that keep surfacing. As Iris digs deeper, she is torn between her investigative reporter persona and questions of loyalty. There are many secrets – both old and new – that are affecting the academy, the students and faculty, and Iris’s evolution from child to adult. The Year of the Gadfly is a classic roman √° clef in the tradition of The Secret History and A Separate Peace.


The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler

Cover imageAaron, an editor in his family’s small vanity publishing house and handicapped from childhood, finds love and joy when he meets and marries Dorothy, a down-to-earth physician who treats him like a fully functioning adult. They’ve settled into married life when tragedy strikes and Dorothy dies. Aaron retreats from everything and everybody in his grief until Dorothy reappears. He’s never sure when it will happen or how long she’ll stay, but he begins working through his feelings of loss and guilt and distance from the rest of the world. The Aaron who was fiercely self-reliant learns that accepting a hand at times is neither a sign of weakness nor a threat to his independence. The title comes from a line of self-help books Aaron edits for everything from weddings to home buying to choosing a doctor and encompasses his journey in this tale of love, loss, and coming out on the other side. The Beginner’s Goodbye is Anne Tyler at her best.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Boy Who Harnesssed the Wind by William Kamkwamba

Cover imageHere is an inspirational story set in a continent that is beset with devastation and despair.  William Kamkwamba is the only son in a large farming family in Malawi, Africa.  While his village of Wimbe is at the mercy of the elements, corrupt government and rampant superstition, William has a vision to bring electricity to his home and village.  The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind tells how he brought his vision to life by building a windmill with spare parts using tools he made himself.  The book is inspirational on many levels, and everyone will find something to cheer about.  Christians will admire William and his family for their faith in the midst of famine and death.  (The family is Presbyterian, thanks to the efforts of early missionaries.)  Scientists will applaud William for his Yankee ingenuity in building his own windmill and other inventions.  Conservatives and civil rights activists will marvel that William didn't accept the oppressive government tactics but instead decided to take matters into his own hands.  Environmentalists will laud his use of renewable energy to generate electricity.  Finally, librarians will cheer William for using his school library to educate himself on the tenets of physics and electricity. (He even spoke at the recent ALA convention.)  This inspirational book proves that there is hope for the people of Africa.


If you enjoy this book, you will like Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Evel Knievel Days by Pauls Toutonghi

Cover imagePauls Toutonghi gives us an amusing read with his novel Evel Knievel Days. Kohsi, the novel’s main character, works at a museum and lives in Butte, Montana. A series of events leads him to take a trip to Cairo to track down his father, who has been absent for almost all of Kohsi’s life. Kohsi does not adjust well to the heat in Cairo, or to really anything in the city for that matter, and in his quest to find his father he quickly learns that his father has plenty of enemies.

Once they meet, it turns out that Kohsi’s father is engaged to be married and that his sisters, Kohsi’s aunts, do not even know Kohsi exists. (Kohsi’s father initially has him pretend to be the son of his friend Malik when he first meets his aunts.) A lot of drama follows, particularly when the aunts realize who Kohsi really is, but Toutonghi’s wonderful dialogue and sharp wit mix together to show the absurdity of the situation.

Other parts of Evel Knievel Days are less successful, particularly Kohsi’s relationship with Natasha—a woman he has spent many years pining for. Their relationship comes up in the first third of the book when Kohsi is in Butte, but it never gets resolved. In fact, a lot of the weaker parts of the book stem from how much time is spent establishing Kohsi’s life in Butte. Once we get to Cairo, it’s as if the book starts over. The ghost of Kohsi’s great-great grandfather, a Montana mining tycoon, starts appearing to him when he gets to Cairo, and I wondered if this was an attempt by the author to try to better tie things together. Instead, the ghost makes for some of the book’s worst scenes. Still, there is a lot to like here. I hope that in his next novel Toutoughi will either pare down his ideas or just write a longer book so they all fit in.


Monday, September 17, 2012

Porch Lights by Dorothea Benton Frank

Cover imagePorch Lights is the story of a family after tragedy occurs, and about going home again. When Jackie's firefighter husband is killed on duty, she and her 10-year-old son are devastated. Jackie decides to spend the summer at her childhood home on Sulllivan's Island to try and heal and decide what is the next step for her and her son. Her unconventional parents are there to help her heal.

Hmmmm...what can I say about Porch Lights? I could say it was my favorite novel by Dorothea Benton Frank, but it wasn't. I could say there's a lot going on in this novel, but there wasn't. I could say the plot is plausible, but it wasn't. I could say the characters are well drawn, but they weren't. I could say that there are twists and turns, but there aren't. What I can say about this novel is that it is quiet - quiet characters, quietly paced, quiet setting. One big quiet yawn.

Read one of her other novels, as generally they are quite good.


Read alike author: Anne Rivers Siddons

Monday, September 10, 2012

William Henry Harrison by Gail Collins

Cover imageThe presidential party conventions have just concluded, thereby inaugurating the final two months of the campaigns.  Voters who cringe at the cacophony of competing commercials might be curious to know how this all started.  The book William Henry Harrison has the answers.  This is the latest title in the outstanding American Presidents series, edited by renowned historian Arthur Schlessinger.  Harrison was the first president to be elected from the Whig Party  (in 1840) and the first to die in office.  However, the real story is how the Whig party recrafted this Southern-plantation-born general into a man of the people.  Building on the success of populist Democrat Andrew Jackson (“Old Hickory”), the Whigs created the catchy slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” to describe their candidate.  They convinced the voters that Harrison was a log cabin president who drank hard cider, and they planned a series of rallies and parades to get the voters involved.  The intensity of the campaign proved overly taxing for Harrison, who was also the oldest president that had ever been elected.  He contracted pneumonia just weeks after his inauguration and died soon after, causing the presidency to pass to the Vice President John Tyler.  Up until then, parties and voters gave little concern to the qualifications of the Vice President to govern, but this episode began to change that.  Readers will discover that the more times change, the more things stay the same regarding Presidential politics.


If you enjoy this book, you will also enjoy American Lion:Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham.

The Journal of Best Practices by David Finch

David Finch has Asperger Syndrome. What’s interesting is that he’s not diagnosed until he’s 30 years old and married for five years. When he’s diagnosed, he and his wife finally have the answers of why he’s the way he is. He describes the news as a relief, because he now knows what causes his odd behavior, outbursts, and other quirks. The Journal of Best Practices came about through Finch’s note taking and journal writing. He is on a constant quest to improve himself. His notes include “Don’t change the radio station when she’s singing along,” and “Be present in moments with the kids.”

This was a great book. It’s not just a book on understanding Asperger Syndrome. It details one man’s quest to become a better husband, and a better father. The situations that Finch describes are laugh out loud funny, and the book is never dry or boring. He and his wife have a great relationship, and work hard at making it even better. They’ve gone through some tough times and Finch’s diagnosis has helped them come to a better understanding of each other.

I listened to the audiobook, which Finch narrates. I’m usually skeptical of an audiobook that’s read by the author. With this book, though, David Finch’s style makes you want to keep listening.I think this book is my favorite of the year.

If you liked this book, you might also want to try Look Me in the Eye by John Elder Robison. 


The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

Cover imageKate Morton managed to once again engross me in the saga The Distant Hours. This time, the story centers around the three Blythe sisters, twins Persephone and Seraphina and their younger damaged sister Juniper. Set in creepy Milderhurst Castle, the novel begins in present day when a young writer, Edie Burchill, is visiting her mother Meredith when a letter arrives that has been lost for decades. The letter is from Milderhurst Castle, and Meredith is very upset about it. Edie is intrigued, especially since her very favorite book, The True History of the Mud Man, was written by the owner of Milderhurst Castle before Edie was born. Meredith has never mentioned Milderhurst to Edie, and refuses to discuss the letter. So of course Edie decides to travel to Kent to find out what her mother is hiding. Then things get interesting!

This novel has all the elements of those old gothic novels: dark old hallways, locked rooms, insanity, murder, and most of all - secrets.


Read-alike author:

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Book of Doing by Allison Arden

Cover imageThe subtitle of this book is: Everyday Activities to Unlock Your Creativity and Joy and that is exactly what The Book of Doing is all about. There are many, many great ideas for ways you can be open to all kinds of new experiences just by doing what really can be described as very simple exercises in creativity. Several of the activities bring you back to childhood arts & crafts playtime. Although at first I thought this would be lame, it turned out to be fun! Just go ahead and check this title out; there is something for everyone and is certainly not your typical self-help book.      


Return of the Viscount by Gayle Kallen

Cover imageIt had been a very long time since I had read an Avon romance, but the reviews for this particular book were  really good so I thought I would give it a try. The plot is a bit same old, same old: beautiful/intelligent/raven-haired voluptuous/independent heiress needs to marry in order to protect her inheritance. Dashing, slightly scarred earl/duke/prince/whatever marries her sight unseen (he has his own reasons for doing this) and all is well. That is, until he decides to pay her a visit. Let the fireworks begin!!!

If you are looking for a quick, easy read, then I really would recommend Return of the Viscount. Nothing new here, but a little romance is always fun!

Read-alike title: American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin (mostly because it is the only thing I have read lately remotely like this!)


Your Voice In My Head: A Memoir by Emma Forrest

Cover imageI’m usually wary of an audio book read by the author. Much of the time their readings are flat and read in a style fine for a short reading in a bookstore but boring for an entire audio book. Emma Forrest’s reading of the audio version of her memoir YourVoice In My Head is an exception. She puts a great deal of life into her reading without going overboard and pulls the listener along through her at times disturbing but always fascinating tale.

Your Voice In My Head is Forrest’s telling of her lengthy battle with mental illness. She has problems with cutting, suicidal thoughts (and attempts), and bulimia. Certainly not cheery material, but one of the things I liked about Your Voice In My Head was that she does not become morose and miserable (at least in writing about her experiences). She often pokes fun at her strange behavior and does a good job describing where her mind was at various troubled times.  She spends a lot of the book trying to get at why she did these awful things to herself and why, at least at the book’s end, she has stopped doing them.

Forrest also talks a lot about a sometimes boyfriend she refers to as GH or her gypsy husband. A little Googling revealed that she dated actor Colin Farrell and, since she keeps talking about GH leaving to go film movies, this is probably who she is talking about. Google also told me that she dated television and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, although I’m not sure if he was mentioned in the book. All in all, this is a well written and read book on a dark subject.